For those of us who have been following the Politics of Religious Freedom project on this website and elsewhere, Beyond Religious Freedom bears a distinct yet familiar flavor. Other scholars writing on religion and secularity have already shown that significant differences exist between “top-down,” “bottom-up,” and “from outside” definitions of religion favored by policymakers, clerics, and academics. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s own categories of “governed religion,” “lived religion,” and “expert religion” reproduce this tripartite division, but add a degree of nuance by showing, for example, that the definitions of religion favored by elites such as policymakers and ecclesial authorities may not match the “lived religion” experienced by ordinary people. Similarly, expertise on religion comes in a variety of forms, from the policy-relevant academic knowledge sought out by federal agencies pursuing counterterrorism objectives to the quasi-missiological scholarship generated by “religious engagement” advocacy groups.
Hurd writes in large part for her colleagues in international relations who have only recently rediscovered religion as a salient factor in global politics and have tried to compensate for their previous tendency to overlook religion, but she also writes for policymakers and activists who have recently embraced the international promotion of religious freedom as a panacea for religious oppression, marginalization of faith communities, and religiously motivated violence. Hurd is firm in speaking to all of these groups, questioning the facile “two faces of faith” model promoted by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation and interrogating the plausibility of religious engagement projects advocated by the United States Department of State. While Hurd is diplomatic throughout, she takes scholars, policymakers, and activists to task for doubling down on the category of religion in their respective endeavors. She persuasively shows that the “two faces of faith” narrative is an oversimplification that uses security language to mask a missionary project (converting “bad religion” into “good religion”). She shows that “engaging” religion means reifying religious identities and making decisions about whose religion really counts.
Hurd’s practice writing for a popular audience shows in this extremely accessible text, and she appears to have already caught policymakers’ attention. It is no accident, for example, that Secretary of State John Kerry’s September 2015 America magazine article anticipated Hurd’s cogent critiques of religious freedom as a facet of foreign policy when it averred that the importance of promoting religious freedom internationally was not a matter of distinguishing between “good” and “bad” religion. But Kerry missed the point when he reproduced the very same paradigm two sentences later.
This strikingly incoherent utterance by the Secretary of State brings me to the lingering question that lies at the heart of Hurd’s book and is built into its title. What, exactly, lies beyond religious freedom?
Hurd is most persuasive when it comes to critiquing the mobilization of religion in geopolitics and international religious freedom advocacy. She becomes a bit vaguer when it comes to describing what the future “beyond religious freedom” actually looks like. The string of rhetorical questions that forms the linchpin of her concluding chapter is illustrative of the issue:
What would it mean to dethrone religion as a stable interpretive and policy category…? What would it entail to disaggregate religion and consider the interrelations between expert, lived, and governed religion? What if we were to accept both that secularization theory was misguided and that religion is also deeply problematic as a political category?
This is a promising set of questions, but while Hurd provides several examples of scholars doing the sort of work that she envisions, she does not provide a clear answer to any of the questions she poses. Indeed, she ends the book with a similarly open-ended set of queries. Clearly, there is much work left to be done.
One problem that hovers over Hurd’s conclusions is that the clearest suggestion for a way forward is also the least workable. Hurd calls for the removal of the unstable term “religion” from law and policy, but the feasibility of eradicating this word from the vocabularies of policymakers, legislators, activists, and jurists is highly questionable. As the aforementioned Kerry article in America amply demonstrates, Hurd cannot even convince policymakers and practitioners to abandon the good/bad religion distinction in any meaningful sense, let alone drop the “r-word” outright.
If the title and conclusion of Hurd’s book leave unanswered the question of what precisely lies “beyond” religious freedom, the subtitle constrains the temporal scope of the book in a way that gives the impression that the “new” global politics of religion is unprecedented. While Hurd says that she aims to historicize the global politics of religion and religious freedom, her largely synchronic account focuses on the contemporary geopolitics of religious freedom but only gestures briefly to pre-9/11 events. To be fair, Hurd acknowledges in the first few pages of the book that the post-9/11 circumstances with which she is concerned do have historical precedent; she also rightly suggests that a quest for the origins of the contemporary politics of religious freedom may be quixotic. Still, international religious freedom advocacy and religious engagement have long histories that can be fruitfully connected to the present.
To offer just one example from my own research, the American promotion of religious freedom during the Allied occupation of Japan seventy years ago (1945–1952) exhibited striking similarities to the American project of promoting religious freedom today. Occupation policymakers discriminated between “good” and “bad” religion and actively sought partnerships with groups they associated with the former. Japanese scholars of religion eagerly offered their expertise in the service of the occupation project of fostering a “desire for religious freedom” in the Japanese people. Ironically, the American policymakers who sought to instill this desire for religious freedom in the Japanese overlooked the fact that the Japanese constitution of 1889 had included a religious freedom clause. It did so precisely because pushy American diplomats of the late nineteenth century successfully convinced Japanese policymakers that guaranteeing religious freedom was a surefire way of proving that Japan counted among the world’s “civilized” nations. Both of these inflection points in modern Japanese history invited Japanese people to adopt religious identity claims, encouraged them to think of preexisting affiliations and practices primarily in terms of religion when other terms may have sufficed, and provided diplomatic cover for American Christian missionary work at the same time. As Saba Mahmood, Anna Su, and William Inboden have shown in related cases drawn from European and American foreign policy, the “global politics of religion” and the “two faces of faith” narrative that Hurd describes are not new at all.
I do not want to give the impression of criticizing Hurd for not writing my book, especially because her work offers the rest of us robust language that we can use to trace the geopolitics of religious freedom across the last couple of centuries of imperial expansion, two world wars, decolonization, the Cold War, and the War on Terror. Setting aside this historical point, I do have three minor quibbles with the book that I want to raise here as a way of thinking through how we might all conduct our work to maximize its impact and generate responsible scholarly method, workable policy, and defensible rights advocacy.
At exactly 200 pages long including critical apparatus, Beyond Religious Freedom is a light, quick read. Brevity is a laudable quality in any academic text. Nevertheless, throughout the book I found myself wanting more data of the sort that Hurd offers in Chapter 5, “Minorities under Law.” It took me until the end of the book to realize why Hurd’s terse examples seemed problematic. In her conclusion, Hurd argues that emphasizing “religion” in international relations forces citizens to “appear on the world stage as religiously motivated actors waiting to be engaged by the United States, the European Union, or the United Nations, rather than as human beings living in history with complex and shifting needs, desires, and affiliations” (pp. 111–12). I wholeheartedly agree with this point, but even as I underlined the passage in question, I recognized that Hurd’s portrayals in the book ironically reproduce the tendencies she criticizes. Whether it is the Rohingya or the Alevis, Hurd tends to describe groups rather than individuals. Even as she critiques the ways that some groups have been represented (or not represented) in policymaking and advocacy, she still focuses on group identity as a sort of shorthand. Individual non-scholarly voices are not entirely absent from her account, but they are certainly not the focus. To truly do justice to the complex and shifting “needs, desires, and affiliations” of religious and non-religious agents, a finer grained analysis is probably necessary.
A second, related, quibble has to do with style. In general, I find Hurd’s writing to be rhythmically pleasant, populated with choice quotes, and admirably free of jargon. But it did catch my attention that Hurd frequently retreats into the passive voice. Agents are missing from many of her sentences. To offer just a few representative examples from page 5: communities are understood as X; religiously free states and subjects are said to be Y; new partnerships are being created. While the guilty parties are sometimes clear from context, Hurd’s analysis might have been even stronger throughout had she been clearer about who was doing what to whom. To be clear, I raise this stylistic point not to nitpick about grammar, but because I think that it reveals a potential pitfall in Hurd’s approach. We need to be able to call out specific individuals and organizations if we want to change their problematic policies and projects. To speak in general terms leaves the guilty parties free to continue with business as usual.
Finally, I wonder where Hurd would draw the line between what she describes as “expert religion” and her own expertise, particularly in light of her own attempts to influence public opinion and policymaking by writing op-eds for outlets such as Al-Jazeera and The Washington Post. I am sympathetic with Hurd’s skeptical position about the role of religion in policymaking and generally agree that introducing the category “religion” into law, policy, and advocacy engenders as many problems as it solves. I also agree that scholarship on religion can problematically reify religious identities, ossify affiliations, and give preferential treatment to those religions that scholars consider “good.” But I fear that Hurd’s critics will dismiss her project as a purely negative one that offers little in terms of feasible policy prescriptions, robust (and just) advocacy, or a workable academic program. For those looking to this book for the definitive approach on how to free religion or how to dethrone it as an organizing category, Hurd provides a sketchy vision at best. But if readers are willing to accept that this project represents a necessary first step, it is a refreshing opportunity to chew on a series of intractable and persistent problems and provides some good terminological tools and brief case studies for thinking through potential solutions.
The foregoing critiques are minor quibbles with an excellent book. Indeed, it is quite possible that the things I have highlighted here might be explained by methodological differences between the fields of religious studies, history, and political science. Overall, Hurd’s project is a must-read for scholars, policymakers, and rights advocates alike. The future it sketches may be vaguely defined, but Hurd is honest about the horizons of her project, both past and future. It us up to the rest of us to pick up where she has left off.